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Too old for overseas service, and with volunteers for Bomb Disposal duty hard to find, Ernest was posted to 7 Bomb Disposal Company, where he would have to serve for a minimum of six months before he would be able to elect to transfer to another branch of the Royal Engineers.  7 Bomb Disposal Company was, at the time, stationed in Bristol under the command of Captain A. V. Lucas, and following a period of initial training on bomb disposal techniques and equipment including Crabtree Dischargers, Universal Fuse keys and Steam Sterilizers, Ernest was deployed to Plymouth with other members of the Bomb Disposal party.  Here they were responsible for digging down to fallen bombs and either detonating them in situ or making them safe for removal, often having to shore up the holes that they had dug with wooden doors and tin sheet that had been salvaged from bombed out houses, before having to use a hammer and cold chisel to unscrew the bomb locking rings to enable the fuses to be withdraw either by hand or by tying a piece of string around the fuse boss enabling it to be removed from a safe distance, before loading the defused bombs onto any means of transport available so that could be safely transport to a suitable dump. With the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk over, the level of enemy bombing increased and the 220 members of the Bomb Disposal Teams started to become overwhelmed.  It was identified that better organisation was required so on the 27th August 1940, the Bomb Disposal teams were formed into companies, each of ten sections plus a company headquarters with the Gunner General being replaced by a Sapper, Major-General G. B. O. Taylor who became Inspector of Fortifications and Director of Bomb Disposal. 

 

A bomb disposal squad at work in Plymouth

A bomb disposal squad at work in Plymouth during the blitz

 

On Thursday 20th March 1941, Plymouth was the scene of a Royal visit, when H.R.H. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived by Royal Train at Millbay Station. They were greeted by Lady Astor, who was deputising for her husband, and spent the day visiting the Royal Marine Barracks, the Royal Naval Barracks, the Royal Dockyard and the Royal Naval Hospital and finally the YMCA before embarking on the Royal Train again ready for departure at 5.45pm, but by nightfall the RAF Control Station was on full alert and four Gloucester Gladiator biplanes were made ready for the defence of Plymouth.   Just after 20:30 hours the air raid sirens sounded and at 20:39 the attack started.  First came a group of Heinkel III bombers flying at between 9,900 and 11,500 feet and loaded with a heavy payload that included 34 delayed action high-explosive bombs.  They where followed at 20:41 by the Pathfinder force flying at an altitude of 19,000 feet.  Tasked with dropping flares to light the targets the shower of flares was followed by 12,500 incendiary and other high-explosive bombs. Once their bombs had been dropped they turned towards the channel and their airfields in France, but were followed by two further squadrons who dropped their bomb loads, including seventeen blockbuster bombs each weighing a ton each, followed finally by a squadron that had been sent to bomb the Westland Aircraft factory at Yeovil, but was diverted to direct their bombs on Plymouth when bad weather prevented them from finding their original target.

 

The aftermath of Plymouth blitz - March 1941
The aftermath of Plymouth Blitz - March 1941

 

During the raid, the premises of Messrs Spooners, directly across from St Andrew's Church, was the first to be hit and with the resulting fires spreading so quickly it became obvious within a very short space of time that Plymouth's own Fire Brigade could not cope.  At 20:55 the first and second stages of a Regional Reinforcement Scheme was put into operation and by 23:00 additional water pumps from Plympton, Saltash, Torpoint, Kingsbridge, Tavistock, Launceston, Bodmin, Wadebridge, Fowey, Liskeard, Lostwithiel, Yelverton, Looe, Torquay, Exeter, Bridgewater, Barnstaple and Yeovil had arrived in the City, supplemented by twenty one fire pumps from the various naval and military establishments in the area.  With properties in Bedford Street, engulfed in flames, the fires soon spread to the Municipal Offices, the Guildhall, and the General Post Office in Westwell Street. As well as various properties in Union Street,. The all clear was finally sounded at 00:20 on Friday 21st March by which time the centre of Plymouth was ablaze but by 04:35 the fires were declared to be under control by the 796 firemen, and 158 appliances, that were by then on duty.

Some of the the worst casualties were at the City Hospital Maternity Ward, which received a direct hit.  Four nurses were killed during the raid, and nineteen children died in the Maternity Ward, and it soon became known that none of the aircraft of 247 Squadron based at Roborough Airfield had taken off to intercept the bombers engaged in that night's raid on Plymouth.   Daybreak on Friday 21st saw the start of the clean up, but the terror was not over and at 20:50 a second night of bombing started, with the target area being the region of the North East of the city adjoining the one hit the previous night and with no air cover from the Royal Air Force, the pathfinder planes circled above the City for twenty minutes, positioning themselves before dropping their flares on the target areas after which the bombers soon followed. 

 

Plymouth on fire  

For a second night fires raged over a wide area of the city from the timber yards and tar distillery at Coxside in the east to the Royal Naval Barracks at Keyham and the Royal William Victualling Yard in the west. 

 

 

 

Plymouth on fire - 1941

 

One man was killed and two injured on Drake's Island and St Andrew's Church, which had been spared the night before, was gutted, as were the Guildhall and the Municipal Offices, the Westminster and Hacker's Hotels in the Crescent and the Plymouth Co-operative Society's emporium resulting the in death of five servicemen in Osborne Place, The Hoe, by an unexploded bomb.  Only two buildings survived in the City Centre that night, the National Westminster Bank in Bedford Street and the office of the Western Morning News Company in Frankfort Street after neither received a direct hit and both were modern buildings constructed of more fire-resistant materials. 

CONTINUED

This page © Phil Jennett

 

 
 
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